EAST LANSING, Mich. — Clayton Thorson’s pass bounced off Drake Anderson’s facemask, hanging in the air for a prolonged moment before it fell into the arms of Michigan State defensive lineman Mike Panasiuk.
When Michigan State scored a touchdown six plays later to take a 19-14 lead with 4:08 to go in the third quarter, it seemed like Northwestern had found a new, embarrassing way to blow a second-half lead.
Thorson and the Northwestern offense refused to let that narrative stick. Instead, over the course of a Saturday afternoon, the offense began to forge a new identity. Unable to run the ball all day, the NU offense — which hasn’t been explosive all season — cashed in on two home run plays. A oft-criticized offensive line allowed only one sack. And most importantly, the Wildcats finally scored in the second half against a Power Five opponent.
Thorson overcame a bad interception in the first half to throw for 373 yards (a conference play career high) and three beautiful touchdown throws. The senior’s poise was on full display as he guided the offense on four touchdown drives.
“You can just see him getting stronger each week,” Pat Fitzgerald said of Thorson. “The way he threw the ball today, he was really driving off that surgical knee, and I think he’s finally getting himself closer to 100 percent, and I think that gives him a lot of confidence.”
After the game, Thorson said Saturday’s performance represented one of his best in terms of responding to difficulties.
“We start 1-3, gotta respond to adversity,” Thorson said. “The first half, I throw a pick, gotta respond. The second half, throw a pick, gotta respond. Just responding when things happen and being mentally tough.”
Michigan State managed a field goal after Thorson’s first quarter interception. Two plays later, Thorson found Kyric McGowan in stride for a 77-yard touchdown, the longest completion of No. 18’s career.
Northwestern repeated the explosive passing play on its next drive, when Thorson found a diving JJ Jefferson in the end zone for a 34-yard touchdown.
“I thought Mick [McCall] and the staff did a good job of putting together a plan, but more importantly, Clayton and the guys on the outside went out and executed and that’s what it’s all about,” Pat Fitzgerald said.
The offensive line held strong too, especially on what proved to be the game-winning drive late in the third quarter. Having effectively abandoned the run, the men up front provided a clean pocket for Thorson seven times on the 75-yard drive, as the senior went 6-of-7 for 58 yards.
Flynn Nagel (10 catches, 111 yards) had an 18-yard reception on 3rd and 4 before Thorson found Cam Green (9 catches, 76 yards) on a wheel route to give NU the lead. The touchdown also released Northwestern from second-half purgatory: it represented NU’s first second half points against a team not named Akron.
“Clayton put the ball in a perfect spot,” Green said. “I mean, if you go back and watch it, I don’t think I broke any stride and the guy was right on top of me, and the ball’s literally right there.”
Fitz and his players posited that NU simply did a better job of executing on Saturday, but you have to imagine this is a confidence-boosting performance for the offense.
The next thing the Wildcats need to shore up is their rushing attack. Matchups with Nebraska and Rutgers, who combined to allow 700 yards on the ground on Saturday, figure to inspire confidence among Anderson and Solomon Vault, who appear to be the primary backs moving forward.
Anderson should have the opportunity to put his third quarter gaffe behind him next weekend. Fortunately for Northwestern, Thorson and the passing attack already did just that Saturday in East Lansing.